February 12, 2013 — The whale spout erupted in the distance, framed against bluish icebergs and towering white peaks. On the Zodiac boat our guide changed direction slightly and cut the engine to drift into the vicinity. Then, just 30′ away the whale surfaced with a deep “poomph”, his warm breath shooting skyward. With a distinctive hump near the spout, this was clearly a humpback whale, about 45′ long and weighing many tons.
The young whale repeatedly dove, then surfaced suddenly to blow and breathe. As time went on his displays became more and more lavish. Slowly a realization began to dawn on us – we were in the presence of a social being with a brain, using its intelligence to attempt to communicate with us. As in, “Heh funny looking black thing with all the yellow jackets on top, look at me! I can roll, dive, smack my tail flukes, show my tummy, coil and uncoil, swim under you – why are you sitting there like a dumb log in the ocean? What can you do?” The fun lasted at least 45 minutes, until our camera’s memory cards were full and batteries dead. As we left the whale gave us a magnificent, double fluke parting salute. (Don’t miss the whales, penguin, and iceberg videos listed at the end of this article!)
Anticipation becomes reality
Ah, your bucket list. It is one thing to think and dream about. Another to actually plan for and make reservations for one, like a trip to the Antarctic for your editor. Anticipation and the preconceptions are the next phase, and one day, if you are lucky, the scary moment of truth comes – you’re there – was all the fuss worth it? This giant whale cavorting around our 2 small rubber boats made the answer clear to me – yes!
What’s on your bucket list?
As most of our members know by now, we believe in bucket lists, which give us goals for life and things to look forward to. Many folks tend to think of these lists as a checklist of destinations… like the Galapagos islands, the ancient clay soldiers in China, an African safari, a trip to the Grand Canyon, or an Alaskan cruise. While those do make great bucket list items, we think there can and should be a little more to them. Writing down things you want to accomplish, what kind of person you want to become, or perhaps some spiritual goal, can make for even more valuable bucket lists. Stretching ourselves helps keep us young and interesting.
Consider these possible bucket list items:
– be a wonderful grandparent
– make a difference as a volunteer
– start a website or blog
– keep a journal
– make a parachute jump
– research your family tree
– write a short story or poem
– learn the names of all the birds in your area
– see all the Oscar nominated movies this year
– learn a new language or musical instrument
– mentor a child
What’s on your bucket list?
If you haven’t taken the time to do so already, spend a few minutes right now writing down some of the things you would like to do before you leave this earth.
Discuss it with a friend or loved one – maybe you have some of the same items you could experience together, or perhaps they’ve thought of something you haven’t. (In fact that’s how I decided to make this trip, my friend Jay had it on his bucket list, and mentioned it to me). Then keep your list handy and review it on a regular basis – people and circumstances change and so will your list.
But back to the Antarctic
We kept a journal on this trip to help preserve the experience. Although it required a bit of discipline, it proved to be a valuable exercise. To help you get a little better picture of what the expedition was like and provide a little armchair adventure on a cold winter’s day, here is an excerpt from one day’s journal:
Tuesday, feb. 5
Today was a lazier day. The overnight campers returned to the ship at 6 AM while the rest of us slept until breakfast at 8. The campers had spent the night on a small plateau in tents and sleeping bags, returning to the ship around 6am. To protect the Antarctic environment the outing had very strict rules – no food, and all human waste had to be deposited in one garbage can – affectionately called Mr. Yum Yum.
The usual start to the day was to be awakened over the PA system by a song (e.g.; “Here Comes the Sun”) and a soothing “Good morning… good morning… Welcome to …. ” from our expedition leader, the laconic and capable Alex. He would brief us on where we had just arrived, the time for breakfast, and what time the first activity would be. If weather permitted there would be 2 or 3 excursions per day – usually 1 ashore to see penguins (see video) and seals, and 2 Zodiac cruises. Alex never failed to remind us of our responsibility – we were in charge of the weather. Every evening at 6 or 6:30 there was a recap of the days events, the plan for the following day, and usually lectures from one or more of the ship’s naturalists. As we awakened this morning, however, there was a lot of banging, which was explained as a problem with the anchor winch, which delayed our departure slightly. The thought occurred – what if we couldn’t raise our anchor so far from any resources?
The morning activity today was a Zodiac cruise through a small bay dotted with icebergs. The main feature was an enormous steep cliff which had Antarctic cormorants and Chin Strap penguins along its ridges. At one point there was the “highway for penguins”, as our naturalist guide put it, which the penguins used as a snowy route to climb to the cliffs hundreds of feet above the water.
Had a nice lunch with an interesting couple, Ben and Diane from Sydney, Australia – he is a professor and she an artist. At 3 PM we arrived at Portal Point on Charlotte Bay on the Redux Peninsula. Here we had our first real hike (optional) on the trip, made possible because there is a natural ramp from the coastline to the continental plain above. At the start of that excursion we met a fur and an elephant seal who were lolling by the landing. After climbing up a narrow land bridge we arrived at the base of a large glacial snow field, where we enjoyed the view and (some) frolicked in the fresh snow. Upon returning to the coast we went on a short Zodiac cruise with one of the guides, Santiago. There we saw icebergs in fantastic shapes, along with Chinstrap penguins and a Leopard seal. Dinner with the 3 delightful sisters from Michigan – Karen, Pam, and Stacey.
A word about the friendly and professional staff, none of whom were from the U.S. The wait staff was from Philippines, Rumania, Central America. Expedition staff were mostly from Canada and Australia, plus a Pole, German, and the charming Argentine – Santiago.
If you go to the Antarctic
The Antarctic is administered by a group of nations, and is reserved for research and nature. There are strict rules to be followed while ashore to protect the environment and wildlife. Two common misperceptions about the Antarctic: there are no polar bears here (if you can’t swim or fly, you don’t live here), and there are no full-time residents (although there are over 20 research stations where people live temporarily).
You must be mobile to really enjoy the trip. Although getting into and out of the Zodiacs is fairly easy, shore excursions often involve walking on slippery rocks or snow. Sailing in the Drake Passage often involves high winds and towering waves – many passengers got seasick or had trouble moving on the pitching decks. With 10 meter waves on our first day at sea, breakfast and lunch had food and passengers flying freely.
Due to ice and cold weather the Antarctic summer, the period between Nov.to March, is the only time you can visit. Average temperatures then are between 20 and 50 degrees F. The weather is quite changeable – it can quickly can go from sunny and calm to snow and very high winds.
It is not an inexpensive trip. We went with Quark Expeditions, which provided an amazing experience at good value. Other carriers include Hurtigruten, Lindblad, Abercrombie and Kent, National Geographic, and others. Basic cruises typically start at just under $10,000, depending on cruise line, cabin, and number of days; and not including airfare and shipboard drinks. The trips last about 8-21 days, with at least 4 days in Antarctica and the rest traveling the Drake Passage or the Falkland Islands (it is now possible to fly 1 or both ways and avoid sailing the Drake Passage , the world’s roughest sea). We recommend the flying option because it is more comfortable and you get more time in the Antarctic.
Passengers seem to fit a certain profile. On the ‘Sea Adventure’ there were more people from Australia than any other country, followed by people from the U.S., Canada, Great Britain, Brazil, and Holland. Everyone was very interested in wildlife, nature, and the great outdoors. They had all traveled extensively, with common destinations including the Galapagos Islands and Machu Pichu. Surprisingly, the age demographics were quite diverse, with a considerable number of 20 and 30 somethings (and the question all of us baby boomers asked was, “where did they get the money”? Answer: A few might be independently wealthy, but many of them either have very good jobs or they saved up, quit their jobs, and just travel until the money runs out). Best of all they were a friendly bunch – with the open seating and common dining times we managed to get to know almost half of the passengers pretty well. They were also a fun-loving group – 42 of the 116 passengers on the ship took the Antarctic Polar Plunge – a jump into the iceberg-laden sea from a platform on the side of the boat – followed by a hot shower and outside dining on the top deck, surrounded by towering icebergs and cavorting whales.
What to Bring
Your expedition usually provides a very nice warm and waterproof parka, along with the loan of waterproof boots necessary for a dry landing ashore. You will also need waterproof pants and gloves, warm socks and hat. Cameras are essential. While the new pocket cameras with big optical zooms can take great pictures, a camera with longer lenses and a viewfinder is nice in certain situations. We found that taking videos of the wildlife was more rewarding than stills. Good birding binoculars are very useful. Dress code is casual outdoor clothes. There is a very strict weight limit for baggage on cruises that include an air component. Many of the ships are 220 V, so bring a 110 adapter to charge all your gear.
For further reading
Frolicking Whales Video
Collapsing Iceberg Video
A very cool video of penguins swimming and jumping onto bergiebits (small ice floes)
Quark Expeditions for Antarctic
Wow, Your Bucket Lists Are Amazing
What’s on Your Retirement Bucket List
Comments? Please share your adventures in completing your bucket list. Did the experience match up to the anticipation? What’s next on your list? Plus, share your thoughts about this trip and bucket lists in general
The first iceberg photo has an arch that’s hard to see at first. Don’t miss our Youtube video of an iceberg collapsing.